In a press release, Jim James said that the decision to finally release what fans had dubbed as My Morning Jacket’s “lost” album came while the frontman was taking a walk during the early days of lockdown, struck by a line in one of the songs about being “hypnotized by the same old thing”, which has undoubtedly taken on a new resonance. The Waterfall II was recorded during the same sessions in Stinson Beach, California that led to 2015’s revelatory The Waterfall, but the band felt the songs were too unrelated to be included as part of a double album, and so decided to split it into separate LPs. After teasing the sequel for years, it seemed like it might never materialize – until now.
It’s not hard to see why the band chose to put out the album in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: for one thing, quarantine has distorted our perception of time to the point where the five year gap between the two albums seems much bigger than it actually is, despite James having released a handful of consistently good solo records in the interim. Though the songs here are about dealing with the aftermath of a relationship, the feelings of being perpetually stuck in the past and yearning for some form of human connection that permeate them render The Waterfall II an unexpectedly prescient album. That line alluded to earlier comes from the opening track ‘Spinning My Wheels’, which, with its ghostly keys and James’ vulnerable delivery, captures that pensive languor better than any other track on the record. It’s not until the closer that the album hits a similarly poignant note: “Can tomorrow feel like it did back in the past?” James ponders, perfectly concluding a record that’s less about creating a new beginning than getting sucked in the illusion of it.
Though it largely lacks the big, soaring moments that made The Waterfall so impactful, The Waterfall II’s soul-searching meditations can be just as evocative. At its best, the warm, gentle production offers some much-needed escapism, like on the winding guitar passages on ‘Feel You’ or the sun-soaked, rousing melodies of ‘Run It’, a hopeful cut about leavings things behind and picking yourself back up that has My Morning Jacket written all over it. But at its worst, the record can feel like it meanders through more of just the same, which might theoretically be fitting for an album about trying to relive the glories of the past, but makes for a sometimes tedious listening experience. Granted, it’s hard to navigate the line between evoking that sense of exhaustion and actually transmitting it to the listener, but The Waterfall II does little to ensure it doesn’t fall into the latter category.
And yet, the record’s languid moments fare much better than some of the more upbeat ones. ‘Still Thinking’ features one of James’ better performances – at one point, he sounds eerily reminiscent of Elliott Smith – but its Beach Boys-esque hook feels trite; ‘Climbing the Ladder’ is another painfully by-the-numbers slice of classic rock n’ roll that never really goes anywhere. On the other hand, ‘Magic Bullet’ does a great job of building tension without ever really releasing it, while ‘Wasted’ finally delivers that climactic crescendo the album so desperately needed. Lyrically, too, the track marks the cathartic moment where James realizes the true nature of his circumstances: “You’re alone and you know/ You’ve done something wrong/ You’ve been wasting/ Too much time lately.”
But as the record moves towards a point of resolution, we get ‘Welcome Home’, a forgettable acoustic ballad that does little more than signal a change in mood, making it feel almost artificial. ‘The First Time’ makes for a hypnotically elusive closer, though, one that reaches for something new but fails to fully let go of the past. It ends with a potent question: “I wonder where the time went,” James repeats, a thought many of us have probably had during the past few months. But despite its unintended relevancy, it’s not hard to imagine some fans wondering the same thing after listening to the entirety of The Waterfall II. If you’re looking for the kind of wide-eyed nostalgia only My Morning Jacket can deliver, this new album probably won’t disappoint; but it fails to replicate their most transcendent moments, and you can’t help but be left with the feeling that James and company can do a lot more.